by Paul West
What the New York Rangers are doing can no longer be explained away as a fluke.
The Rangers aren’t just scoring points in droves; they’re routinely putting up rec league numbers. Several weeks into the season, they’ve scored five goals or more in more than half of their games; they’re averaging 4.2 goals per game, first in the NHL, and the scoring is coming from all four lines. Exhibit A: their leader in goals isn’t Chris Kreider, who’s been frequently sidelined by injury despite playing well when on the ice; it isn’t Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarrello, Rick Nash or even Kevin Hayes. It’s–wait for it–Michael Grabner. With all due respect to the former first round pick, it’s safe to say that almost nobody would have predicted he’d even be a top-six player this far into the 2016 season, much less the leading goal scorer on a Rangers team that’s been among the league’s best for several years. Grabner already has ten goals on the season, and they aren’t flukes; they’re the result of an extraordinary explosiveness in transition that’s represented the Rangers at their best under Alain Vigneault. Grabner has a nose for stealing pucks and a nose for open lanes, and when he gets the puck, he mows downhill towards the net and shoots the puck aggressively. And he’s not the only one: 6’2″ rookie forward Pavel Buchnevich, after taking a while to find the net, now has four goals and has begun to demonstrate a knack for firing the puck on goal. He’s one of the reasons the Rangers’ power play has gone from a frustrating spectacle of over-passing to a balanced, dangerous attack. Speaking of passing: Zuccarello continues to show supernatural ice vision and playmaking ability; though he still passes up far too many good shot opportunities, he’s already got 7 goals and 6 assists and opens up the ice for his line mates while playing well in all three zones. Then there’s 6’3″, 215 pound defenseman Brady Skej, who gives the Rangers much-needed size on defense but also leads NHL rookies with a whopping 10 assists. Jimmy Vesey, another rookie, is 6th in points among NHL rookies–he’s got 7 goals and 4 assists, and is also spending a lot of time among the Rangers’ top lines.
Seeing a trend here?
The Rangers are putting up touchdowns once a week, and who’ll do the scoring on any given night is anyone’s guess. The Rangers–who are still technically one of the NHL’s oldest teams, in terms of average age–have a bumper crop of rookie talent that’s increased the explosiveness and balance that drove them to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2014. The Rangers now have speed, size, youth, experience, aggressiveness, and the willingness to shoot the puck. Along with Skej, Vesey, Buchnevich et cetera, they still have Stepan, Nash, JT Miller, Ryan McDonagh (also with 11 assists from the blue line, who happens to be an NHL household name), Zuccarrello…et cetera.
The Rangers also still have excellent goaltending. Henrik Lundqvist has done his best Grant Fuhr impression, making miraculous saves to buy time for the seemingly inevitable scoring outbursts. Antti Raanta has been the Andy Moog to Henrik’s Fuhr–a backup goalie whom half the league would gladly have as their ace. Of course, the Fuhr/Moog comparison is double-edged, and representatively so: as was the case for several years of the Oilers dynasty, Lundqvist and Raanta have often had to bail out a team whose transition aggressiveness can sometimes give create odd-man breaks for their opponents. This could wind up the Rangers’ achilles’ heel when the playoffs come around; the Rangers will have to remember to pay attention to the front of their own net while they charge downhill toward the offensive zone. Fortunately, they’re less undersized than they were last year, and are more physically equipped to impose their will in their own zone–and in the offensive zone, as well, as evidenced by the prolonged forechecks that have led to many of their goals.
It’s still early, but it’s no longer too early to say this: this Rangers team is for real, and it’s a real threat to make another run. There are a few tweaks to be made, but there’s more than enough time to make them and they have the talent, leadership and coaching to apply them once made. The window might not be closing as quickly as previously feared.